In the 1980s, the Washington Redskins were one of the best and most feared teams in the National Football League. They had a bunch of colorful characters, as well as a hard-hitting style of play.
Washington featured a group of rough-and-tumble offensive linemen called “The Hogs,” and they also featured a star defensive end named Dexter Manley.
Manley became one of the league’s better pass rushers, and his talent and skill took him to the pinnacle of the sport.
But he had a number of indiscretions off the field that marred his legacy and public image.
However, Manley has also been an inspiration to others, and ironically, it was because of some of his struggles.
Overcoming A Rough Childhood
Dwight Keith Manley was born on Feb. 2, 1959 in Houston, Texas to Jewellean and Carl Manley. He was one of four children, the others being his brothers Reggie and Gregory and his sister Cynthia.
As a young child, Manley struggled to learn how to read. Many young children have challenges in that area, but for Manley, learning to read at an age-appropriate level must’ve felt like trying to scale Mount Everest.
By the second grade, he had already gotten 19 failing grades at Douglas Elementary School. During Sunday School, when he was asked to read scripture, he would say that he left his glasses at home in order to avoid the embarrassment of being behind his peers as a reader.
Manley didn’t wear glasses. He was simply lying.
On top of that, he has something of a reputation as a hoodlum. One day, he body-slammed one of his second-grade teachers into a blackboard. He also got into lots of fights with his classmates, and he had a tendency to poke people’s eyeballs with his fingers.
Manley was ordered to repeat the second grade because of his poor marks, but on his second try, he didn’t do better, and his parents were asked to come to campus for a confidential meeting.
The people in charge at Douglas Elementary thought they had a solution. They labeled him as “educable mentally retarded” and placed him in special education.
The change was rough on Manley. He remembers feeling “resentful,” as he saw the difference in curriculum between his non-disabled peers and his special ed classes.
This change in curriculum created a new problem. The “normal” kids started recess at 11:30 a.m., while Manley’s special ed class did so at 12:30 p.m. As recess ended for the non-disabled kids, they would go to the windows in front of Manley’s special ed classroom and chant, “Mentally retarded . . . mentally retarded.”
Larry Marshall, who became the school’s principal a little later, felt that the decision to place Manley in special ed was simply wrong.
“You could tell he was not a mentally retarded child . . . I mean, here was this kid, and yes, we had our encounters. Dexter had a mind of his own, and it was very obvious we had to stay a couple of steps ahead of him,” Marshall said.
Perhaps Manley’s one saving grace was his father Carl. On one hand, the elder Manley considered Dexter his least favorite son – his favorite was Reggie, dexter’s older brother who was a star basketball player in high school.
However, the elder Manley also told people that Dexter would be the one person among his kids who would make it. Perhaps he didn’t know for sure, but sometimes parents who say such things somehow know.
When Manley started junior high, he was no longer in special education. Good riddance, he must’ve thought.
He still had academic hardships, but his parents were there to provide support and structure. Father Carl wouldn’t let any of his kids go play outside until they finished their homework.
Another thing that kept Manley in line was the fact that he knew other kids who had dropped out of school and struggled to get by, or worse.
By junior high, and especially by the time he made it to Yates High School in Houston, he had learned how to be polite, which helped him stay in the good graces of his teachers. It also didn’t hurt that he was a prodigy on the gridiron.
Perhaps the fact that he was a star football player in a part of the nation where high school football is almost like a second religion helped him skate through his academics. Or perhaps he was simply putting lots of effort into his studies, just enough to pass his classes.
“Those teachers recognized that I was on the football team. It’s the same old system,” Manley said. “You show up in class. You’re doing the best you can. And, sometimes they gave me a passing grade.”
By the end of his senior year of high school, things were looking up for Manley. He was nearing graduation, which was a miraculous enough accomplishment for someone who was once labeled “mentally retarded,” whether it was true or not. He was also on his way to play college football for Oklahoma State University, which would offer him not just a scholarship, but also a car.
But he now had another piece of adversity to deal with. His girlfriend, Stephayne Baker, was pregnant, and he didn’t know how to handle it.
Manley’s mother suggested he marry her, but his father disapproved of doing so. He decided to marry Baker but to keep it a secret from dad.
A few months later, when he found out, the elder Manley was livid. But it didn’t matter too much, because the younger Manley was off to college.
Oklahoma State Bound
At Oklahoma State, Manley would have the good fortune of playing under head coach Jimmy Johnson, who years later would go on to guide the Dallas Cowboys to back-to-back Super Bowl championships.
But in college, Johnson didn’t play Manley much, and supposedly, the coaching staff didn’t think too much of him.
According to Manley, one day the coaching staff was watching game film of him, and they asked him to come into the room, when, according to him, they scorched him to a crisp.
“They said, ‘Dex, you’re never going to be——,'” said Manley. “‘You’re never going to be nothing but a factory worker, digging ditches all your life.'”
Neither Johnson nor defensive coordinator Pat Jones recalled the incident.
As a freshman, Manley felt lonely on campus. He was becoming a contradiction of a man, someone who could be outwardly lovable and sensitive, but was also known to talk a big game.
He also dressed lavishly, and he drove a new Mercury Cougar, two qualities that may have made him a target one night.
When Manley attempted to back out of a parking space, two men wouldn’t let him do so. He apparently challenged them to a fight, and they told him to come to their fraternity house and back up his words.
Manley did, and he won the fight. However, one of the men had a razor blade hidden in his hand, and it created a huge wound in Manley’s head, which required 18 stitches to close. The resulting scar is still visible to this day.
He also had to deal with more adversity in his family. His father Carl died from a bout with colon cancer early in his college career, then mere months later, his brother Reggie died after being shot twice during a robbery.
Reggie had gone into a downward spiral following the death of the Manley family patriarch. Luckily, Dexter had football as his north star.
He continued to struggle academically, but through hard work and the help of a special companion, he got by.
Manley divorced Baker during his junior year, and although it wouldn’t be a smooth separation (she would later file suit against him to claim back child support payments), he found a new flame in Tammy Wilmore.
They would study together, and she would even read to him and help him with his writing skills on occasion.
There was more adversity for Manley to deal with, although it was of his own making. After his father passed away and before his marriage ended, he received Social Security survivor-benefit checks, but he claimed he was single. He ended up being ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and was placed on three years’ probation under the Youth Corrections Act.
If he wasn’t a great individual NCAA player, he was somewhere on the radar of NFL scouts heading into the 1981 NFL Draft. Coach Johnson says that he and his staff put in some good words for Manley, but he claims that his coaches did the opposite.
It seemed the chip on his shoulder was only growing bigger and bigger.
Mr. Manley Goes To Washington
Manley felt that he would be a first-round draft pick, but instead, he fell to the fifth round, where the Redskins took him with the 119th overall pick.
At the time, they were struggling, but the winds of change were already starting to blow. They had a solid quarterback named Joe Theismann, as well as a young wide receiver named Art Monk, who would end up in the Hall of Fame.
That year, Joe Gibbs, who had previously been the offensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers. Gibbs had been a key figure behind the Chargers’ innovative “Air Coryell” offensive scheme that would change the NFL game, but it would be on the defensive side of the ball where the Redskins would make their name, and Manley would be a huge reason why.
He had six sacks as a rookie while starting nine of the 16 games he played in, and the Redskins finished 8-8, a two-game improvement over the year before. They weren’t a good team, but they were just getting started.
The 1982 season was shortened to nine games by a player’s strike, and as a result, the league expanded the playoff field to 16 teams in what became known as the “Super Bowl Tournament.”
Washington finished first in points allowed with the help of Manley, who recorded 6.5 sacks, and they finished with a dominant 8-1 record, which was tops in the NFC and tied for the best record overall.
After easily getting past the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Redskins matched up with their old conference rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, in the NFC Championship Game.
Manley made his presence known in this contest. The Redskins went up 14-3, and with 28 seconds left in the first half, he delivered a big hit on Cowboys quarterback Danny White that caused him to sustain a concussion and miss the rest of the contest.
Dexter Manley knocks Danny White out cold in the nfc title game 82 season pic.twitter.com/ymALFiD0u2
— Martin Brian Ansah (@DaAnsahonSports) July 3, 2020
But Dallas fought back and trailed by just seven points in the fourth quarter. With 6:55 remaining, Cowboys backup QB Gary Hogeboom attempted to throw a screen pass to running back Tony Dorsett from his own 20-yard line, but Manley deflected it into the hands of teammate Darryl Grant, who ran it back for a touchdown.
With a 31-17 victory, the Redskins were headed to the Super Bowl in Southern California at the Rose Bowl versus the Miami Dolphins.
The loquacious, braggadocio side of Manley started to come out, as he guaranteed the Redskins would win.
Early on, it looked like perhaps he should’ve kept his mouth shut. In the first quarter, while on his own 24-yard line, Dolphins QB David Woodley fooled Manley by giving him a pump fake, then found wideout Jimmy Cefalo, who evaded Washington safety Tony Peters and took the football all the way down the right sideline for a touchdown and the first points of the game.
Manley wouldn’t let that happen again.
After the Redskins failed to score, he hit Woodley as he looked to go deep, forcing him to fumble, and allowing defensive tackle Dave Butz to gain possession, which led to a successful field goal by Mark Moseley.
After Miami took a 17-10 lead into halftime, Washington had its way with them in the second half, as Woodley played about as bad as a quarterback possibly could in a big game. The Redskins took the game, 27-17, giving them their first world championship in the modern era of the NFL.
Emboldened by the experience, Manley would be arguably the NFL’s best defensive end. Outside of Lawrence Taylor, the transcendent linebacker for the New York Giants, he may have been the league’s best pass rusher.
He posted 11 sacks in 1983 and got some consideration for the Defensive Player of the Year award as Washington looked to defend its championship. It went 14-2 and returned to the NFC Championship Game, where it faced Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers.
The 49ers had won the Super Bowl just two years earlier and were in the early stages of a dynasty. But the Redskins didn’t seem to care, as they ran up a 21-0 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
But Montana, who was known as the “Comeback Kid,” got the 49ers three quick touchdowns, and with 7:08 left in the final frame, the score was tied, and it looked like Washington was in trouble.
To make matters worse, Moseley had missed all four of his field-goal attempts to that point.
But the Redskins did a good job of playing ball control, burning up the clock, and when Moseley had a 25-yard attempt with 40 seconds left, he nailed it. That kick sent the Redskins back to the Super Bowl.
Unfortunately, their bid for back-to-back championships failed, as the Los Angeles Raiders waxed them, 38-9.
In each of the next three seasons, Manley recorded double-digit sacks, topping out at 18.5 in 1986. That was his best individual season, as he was named to both the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro First-Team.
By now, Manley had earned the nickname “Secretary of Defense” for his propensity to turn each game into a living hell for opposing quarterbacks.
And just for you, here's a Dexter Manley compilation video 💪🏽 pic.twitter.com/vWrro70M9u
— Simon Thurston (@SimonPThurston) April 15, 2022
Not only did he play big, but he also talked big. Before one contest that year versus the Niners, he told reporters that he wanted to “ring [Montana’s] clock.”
The Redskins won that contest 14-6, as the game’s greatest signal-caller went just 33-of-60 while throwing three interceptions and no touchdowns.
After winning 12 games, Washington knocked the defending champion Chicago Bears in the divisional round of the playoffs, only to get shut out by the eventual world champion New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game.
But the team bounced back strong in 1987. Although Manley missed five games due to a knee injury, he still managed to get 8.5 sacks and help the Redskins finish 11-4 (the season was shortened by one game due to another strike), good enough for first place in the NFC East.
After coming back from a 14-0 deficit to defeat the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, the Redskins held down the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game, 17-10, as Manley was one of seven players to record a sack.
In Super Bowl XXII, Washington had its way with John Elway and the Denver Broncos, 42-10. With Manley’s help, Elway completed just 14-of-38 passes and had three interceptions.
With two world championship rings, Manley was now at the top of his profession. However, a new personal battle was brewing for him.
Giving Into Temptations
In the 1980s, illegal drug abuse was a problem throughout professional sports, and the NFL was no exception.
Of particular concern was cocaine, a substance that had become something of a status symbol by the start of the decade.
During his rookie season, Manley was turned onto the stimulant by one of his teammates.
“I went to a veteran teammate’s house,” he recalled. “I’m not going to name names, but he was an All-Pro cornerback. I was so impressed with him. He had big fancy cars and a big fancy house in Reston, Va. I go in his house and he has two ladies walking around there in robes. And then I see another guy come to the door in a big fancy white car and give him a brown bag.”
That teammate told Manley he was going to do cocaine and sleep with both women, and he was impressed.
“I thought, ‘This guy has got to be the baddest dude ever. How do you get that?'” said Manley. “I was just floored. I was like, ‘Is this what happens in the National Football League? I wanna do that.’ I didn’t then, but it stayed on my mind.”
The following year, the defensive end met a woman at a Georgetown bar who became his cocaine connection, and the drug started to become a significant part of his life.
At the same time, Manley was also developing a problem with alcohol. In 1985, he got very drunk the night before practice, then showed up to the practice field, only to hastily leave the driveway and collide with a tractor-trailer.
Luckily, Manley wasn’t just physically OK, but he also passed a blood-alcohol test. He then told Gibbs that he had gotten into the collision because he was emotional and stressed out due to the bad health of his mother.
In March of 1987, Manley took in a night of binge drinking, and when he woke up the next morning, his wife sensed that something was wrong with him. An ambulance was called, and just two days later, Manley was headed to Hazelden Foundation, a drug-and-alcohol-rehabilitation center in Center City, Minn., and he stayed there for one month.
Even if Manley had overcome alcoholism at that point, cocaine still had a hold over him.
A former NFL drug adviser had once taught him and his teammates how to beat a drug test. It involved the common over-the-counter cold medication Sudafed, and soon Manley was taking multiple Sudafed pills prior to games, which would make him extremely stimulated.
By the mid-1980s, several major sports leagues, including the NFL and NBA, were cracking down on cocaine use, and Manley would soon have to pay the piper. It was a time when Len Bias, the college basketball superstar who was considered the Kobe Bryant or LeBron James of his time, had died from a cocaine overdose just two days after being drafted by the world champion Boston Celtics, and it was an incident that illustrated to the public at large how dangerous the drug could be.
Before the Redskins took the field for Super Bowl XXII, Manley underwent a drug test that he failed. However, the team didn’t inform the league of the result until after the game so that he could participate in it.
Later in 1988, he tested positive for cocaine again and was suspended for 30 days. Then, during the 1989 season, a third positive test led to a punishment of lifetime banishment from the NFL.
He was still a star player at that point, even if he wasn’t at the same level he enjoyed just a few years earlier. Luckily, the league had a rule that allowed him to apply for reinstatement after a year of being banned, and he won that right, leading to him playing four games for the Phoenix Cardinals in 1990.
Alas, Manley produced a fourth positive drug test in 1991. Instead of facing a lifetime ban, he decided to retire in December of that year.
He would play two more seasons in the Canadian Football League, but he couldn’t steer clear of cocaine. His habit would lead to his wife divorcing him, being homeless and multiple arrests and stints behind bars.
At one point, Manley even sold one of his Super Bowl rings to finance his addiction.
Still, he managed to get on society’s good side, and it came out of yet another personal problem.
Turning A Weakness Into An Inspiration
Throughout his NFL career, Manley continued to have problems reading at an age-appropriate level. But no one knew how bad it was until late in his time with the Redskins.
Oddly enough, it was one of the most gruesome incidents in NFL history that led him to admit his deep personal secret.
He witnessed Theismann’s career-ending in 1985 when Lawrence Taylor tackled him and broke his leg in gruesome fashion. It inspired him to admit during a televised Senate hearing on illiteracy in 1989 that he was, in fact, functionally illiterate.
Manley had hid his illiteracy through sleight of hand, by copying teammates and others. But after putting in a few years of hard work with teachers and tutors, he started reading at an adult level.
Afterward, he became something of a role model to others who struggle with illiteracy. He has received many letters from people who have trouble reading, and he has felt he has a responsibility to help such people.
Manley may have had many indiscretions through the years, but now he has become an inspiration to others.